In the first of a new series of columns from our Advisory Panels, Dr Penny Kechagioglou calls for more clinicians to take on digital leadership roles

Digital health is transforming the way we care through connecting and monitoring patients remotely, through aggregation and analysis of disparate data sources to improve care outcomes, as well as through automation of essential clinical administration tasks. A critical factor in the success of digital health is the body of clinicians that have combined their knowledge of what safe and effective care looks like with a patient-centred approach to digital workflow design. This has enabled implementation and scale of digital innovations across the NHS, which have improved care quality and experiences of care.

As clinicians, we are well-placed to be the best innovators in healthcare, translating ideas from day-to-day practice into reality while engaging with patients, colleagues, academics and industry partners in implementing digital tools and services.

In the current unpredictable healthcare environment, working as a clinician can feel daunting and uncertain. But the power to change healthcare lies in the innovative and entrepreneurial talent that exists within the clinical community.

Not a ‘technical’ person

It is a privilege to work as an active clinician in digital health at a time when our NHS is transforming and aspiring to become the best digital health system in the world. We need to pause, observe, and reflect on what is changing around us: as few years ago, there was no concept of the digital hospital, but we are now seeing more patients being cared for at home and opting for this type of care. Citizens value a modern healthcare system; as clinicians, we have the knowledge and skills to transform health and care by leading the digital health of the future.

When the opportunity came to apply for a digital health role in my organisation, the first thing I thought was that this would not suit me as I am not ‘technical’, and being a female, I would probably not get the role anyway. I decided to apply because of the challenge that the role would bring me personally and professionally, and because my research interest in innovation and leadership was directly applicable.

Two years later, I am delighted that I didn’t let my biases get in the way. I am also hopeful that healthcare organisations will continue to value clinical leadership, clinical excellence and operational delivery when making decisions about digital health roles.

A bigger impact

My role as chief clinical Information officer (CCIO) has brought together all the knowledge and experience I have gained over the years in leadership, quality improvement and transformation. It is as much about clinical and people leadership as it is about data analytics, workflow design and stakeholder engagement. Working with ‘technical people’ has made my team more diverse and the outcomes of my work are having an impact on a larger population than my clinical work could ever reach.

Through my role as CCIO, I have had the opportunity to speak about digital health in conferences and webinars, write about digital health, innovation and leadership in journals, articles and blogs, and teach university students about digital health and transformation. I have also contributed to the leadership programme for leaders in my organisation and I am the author of a book on leadership and innovation in healthcare.

However, what I value most of all, is my involvement in the Digital Health network – a group of diverse clinical leaders from across the UK with the passion and talent to transform healthcare through digital.

Solutions to ‘pain points’

I am honoured to have been elected recently as vice-chair of the Digital Health CCIO Advisory Panel. It gives me the opportunity to bring more diversity into digital health leadership, shape the clinical informatics teams of the future, and drive innovation and entrepreneurship in clinical leadership. The CCIO Advisory Panel, alongside the CNIO and CIO Advisory Panels, is an amazing initiative and I would have no hesitation in urging other clinicians with a passion for healthcare improvement to join future panels.

Digital health is the future of healthcare and therefore we need more clinicians to be involved in end user-centred design of digital workflows. We should learn from other healthcare organisations globally, where implementation of electronic health records has led to increasing clinician burnout. Such unintended consequences can be avoided by ensuring clinical leaders play a key role in digital system design.

It is exciting to engage with digital system providers – you can help to translate clinical problems and the ‘pain points’ clinicians and patients face when interacting with healthcare into impactful solutions. This is what working in digital health as a clinician is about.

Dr Penny Kechagioglou is CCIO, deputy chief medical officer, and consultant clinical oncologist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, as well as vice-chair of Digital Health’s CCIO Advisory Panel.